Happy New Year!

Yes, it’s Tea Ceremony New Year.

Tea Ceremony New Year Celebrations

Each year in November we celebrate Tea Ceremony New Year.

And what does that entail? That means that we are shifting from the summer service to the winter service. The summer service and the winter service of Tea ceremony are largely different.

[Watch the video which this article is a transcription of]

The Summer Service of Tea Ceremony

In summer, we use a furo (風炉). The furo is the floor brazier. It’s usually a metal or laquer or ceramic basin in which the ash is kept to hold the hot charcoal. This is placed on a laquer floorboard plinth, which is placed on the tatami. It can be moved around, and it can be placed as far away from the guests as necessary.

This is really the reason why we use it in summer. We want to distance the heat from the guests during the hottest months. The way the floor brazier is built also helps to encapsulate the heat. This again protects the guests from being too hot during a tea ceremony in the midst of summer.

Tea Ceremony New Year Summer Service

The Winter Service of Tea Ceremony

Now in winter, we use the ro (炉), or what we translate in English as the sunken hearth. The sunken hearth is a pit that is set beneath the flooring and is flush with the tatami. This pit is clad with thick earthen plaster walls to keep the heat from causing a fire. It contains a thick layer of ash into which charcoal is placed to boil the hot water in the kettle.

This sunken hearth is a part of the architecture of the tea chamber, whereas the floor brazier can be moved about. Because it is part of the architecture of the tea chamber, we pay more attention to the sunken hearth. The sunken hearth is an essential feature of a tea chamber. It is placed centrally in the tea chamber, creating a nice atmosphere where everyone is sitting around the hearth. And it divides the heat it emits evenly.

But it is also an essential part of the tea Chamber itself.

A tatami matted room without a hearth is not a tea chamber.

Tea Ceremony New Year Robiraki Kuchikiri

Changing of the seasons

In November when we transition from summer to winter service, taking the sunken hearth in use again, we hold a special celebration for this occasion. And because this is a yearly cycle, we call this the new year of tea ceremony. This transition marks the start of a new cycle of a tea ceremony year.

We use the sunken hearth from November until April. From May onward, we use the floor brazier and close the sunken hearth. Now if you pay attention to the dates, you may know that April and May are the months in which the fresh tea or the fresh harvest, the shin-cha of that year is produced.

Shincha Matcha New Year Harvest

A tea practitioner would always look for the freshest tea to use, but with matcha for tea ceremony it’s a bit different. We hardly ever drink the freshly harvested tea right off the bush. It is common to let the tencha leaf – which is the base material for the matcha powder – age for half a year, and only drink it in November.

The freshly harvested tencha is put into a special tea jar. These tea jars are very precious. They’re very rare. Not many artisans make these anymore. Also, they’re not being used that much anymore because now dedicated warehouses and other packing material is favored over this more elaborate style.

The Tea Jar Chatsubo

robiraki kuchikiri tea jar
The tea jar

But from a cultural and traditional perspective, for a tea ceremony adept, these jars are essential items. The tea in this jar is packed a special way. In the center it contains a paper pouch in which the high quality tencha for koicha is contained. You can have either one or two brands of koicha, which makes for one or two pouches in the jar. Around these pouches the jar is filled with a pack of lesser grade tencha.

This surrounding tencha material is usually used for usucha. Technically speaking we can understand from this that the surrounding “packing-material” is essentially only there to protect and keep the precious koicha grade tencha fresh. The purpose of the jar is then essentially to age the koicha grade tencha leaf, and the thin tea material is simply a bi-product.

Two New Year Celebrations

robiraki offering to the sunken hearth
Offering of salt, rice and bonito flakes.

The lid of the jar is sealed in place with a paper seal. Then it is set into the sunken hearth before it is closed off in May, where it stays under the floor for half a year until in November, we open the sunken hearth again. This is a grand occasion and it actually entails two celebrations.

The opening of the sunken hearth itself is called Ro-biraki (炉開), and we hold a specialty ceremony for robiraki in which make an offering to the God of the hearth, which is essentially the god of the tea chamber. Essentially we ask “We’re happy to take you in use again. Please grant us your good favors and give us another good year of tea ceremony.”

The ritual goes as follows: after having laid out the charcoal in the hearth, we give an offering of rock salt, unpolished rice, and bonito flakes. The salt is to purify the heart. The rice is to give an offering of the things that we get from the land. And the bonito flakes is an offering of the things that we get from the sea. This way we have a bit of everything.

Unsealing The Tea Jar

kuchikiri robiraki ritual offering
An offering of two flasks of ritual rice wine.

If there is a tea jar in the sunken hearth, then the jar would have to be removed first. This jar contains the fresh tea of that year, which no one has yet drunk. During this tea ceremony, we would also dedicate a special ceremony to the ritual unsealing of the tea jar.

This ceremony is called the kuchi-kiri-no-gi (口切の儀). During the kuchi-kiri-no-gi, the paper seal over the top of the jar is ritually cut open with a knife, and then the tea is rolled out. The pouch with the kocha is removed, and because it’s still tea leaf, it needs to be ground. This is done with a stone mortar, which takes a bit of time.

The Procession of  the Tea Jar

In the 17th century in Japan, the tea ceremony was very popular among the wealthy landlords or daimyō class and even the Shogun, ruler of Japan, paid a lot of expense to this tradition. Every year he dispatched a team of tea masters from the capital, Edo (now Tokyo) to Uji in Kyoto to coordinate and prepare the best tencha tea. The tea masters would arrive at the tea farms early May, when the first tea is to be harvested and would engage in stuffing the tea urn with the freshest tea leaves during a period of approximately 20 days. Afterward, they would get back on the road and form one of Japan’s most honored processions. Even daimyō processions would step aside to let the tea urn pass. This procession, also called Cha-tsubo-dōchu (御茶壺道中) or “the tea urn procession” would rest in Yamanashi prefecture for three months in order to evade the heat of Summer. The tea urn was during this time safely stored in a cool storage or warehouse.

After this period, the tea masters would recommence their journey and take the urn to the capital. By the time they arrived, it was already the beginning of Autumn. Taking them approximately 6 months to take the newly harvested tea of that year to the capital, the tea has been ripening and deepening it’s taste before reaching the Shogun’s tea bowl.

Now, is it out of respect for the Shogun only to be able to drink his tea after half a year. Or is it really a consideration that makes the tea better? I leave that up for a speculation, but the tradition continues till today.

Tea ceremony new year tea jars and ritual offering

Drinking Tea for Health

Shincha is believed, in line with most “first produce”, to extend one’s life span with a few additional days at a time, shincha is generally seen as healthy. However, opinions are divided about how healthy shincha really is. Kaibara Ekken, a 17th – 18th century scholar who pioneered in the research of nutrition, wrote in his book “Yōjōkun” (養生訓), the following about the first flush tea:

There are many people now who drink a lot of tea from dawn to dusk…drinking a little tea after a meal helps digestion and quenches thirst. Salt must not be added as it’s bad for the kidney. One must not drink tea with an empty stomach as it damages the spleen and the stomach. One must not drink too much of koicha, as it damages the qi generation of a person… People with weak constitution must not drink that year’s shincha at all. It will cause eye problems, anemia, and diarrhea. You should only drink shincha after the first month. For people with good constitution, drinking it after the ninth or tenth month should not be harmful.

In case the time here is confusing, the months referred to here are the lunar calendar dates. So for normal shincha harvesting would happen in the second month, which is around April. When he says one shouldn’t drink it until the first month, that means the lunar new year of the following year – that’s about a 10-11 months wait before drinking the tea. Ninth or tenth month would translate to about November or December.

When to drink shincha?

In Kaibara’s opinion, it is better to let the freshly harvested tea rest for at least half a year before consuming it. He even relates certain effects on the body to drinking shincha too early. During the period he lived, Sencha or Gyokuro weren’t available yet and most of the tea was drunk as Matcha for the tea ceremony. Even during that time, the first flush tea was sealed in an urn and stored away in the sunken heart, where it could age for half a year.

It was fairly uncommon to consume the first harvest “right off the bush”. However, judging from Kaibara’s statement, it is easily derived that certain people must have consumed the tea right away and some of them may have experienced internal difficulties digesting the brew. It is most likely from those experiences that Kaibara mentioned shincha and gave a brief warning about it’s possible side effects in his book.

What do you think about this jar? Would you love to own one? Would you actually put tea in it and do it properly? Would you like to learn how this ritual works? Leave a comment to share your thoughts or ideas.

And last but not least, I have also created a set of teas that were harvested this year and that are now available as the fresh shincha matcha of this year! They have been carefully matured for half a year and can now be enjoyed at The Tea Crane. Get a taste of these special teas now at a special price with our “2022 Kuchi-kiri Matcha Set”!

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